A hollow victory

There’s been a lengthy break in play since my last post, I do apologise for keeping you in suspense. For those playing at home, the previous state of play was me sinking beers in an airport after being firmly asked to leave the district where I was conducting my research. The local passports officer was unsatisfied that my foreigner registration was from another location, so I needed to transfer. After confirming that the office would be open the next day, I made the two-hour journey to the nearest airport and got an evening flight to Hyderabad.

I landed late and slept badly. Clutching a wad of paperwork, I took an Uber to the FRRO where I had such fond memories. It was closed. Because of course it was.

“Tuesday,” the security guard grunted.

“Not Monday?” I was optimistic, seeing as it was a public holiday, but the security guard had already lurched back to his desk by this stage.

So I sat in a hotel room for the weekend. Having previously exhausted most of Hyderabad’s tourism activities, I watched movies and got food delivered all weekend, bingeing on curries and self-pity.

When Tuesday rolled around, I was bouncing off the wall to get to the FRRO. I was one of the first in line and spoke to the man in the waiting room as soon as I walked in. I remembered from last time that the waiting room’s guardian was key to accessing the second office of the FRRO, which was where all the real stuff happened. I explained my situation as politely as possible and he grunted that I needed a “no objections” letter from my university. Great. So off I went.

The letter from the university took a few days to organised. I was forever grateful when my local friend returned from his trip and took me for a beer. He very patiently listened and ordered multiple rounds of chilli paneer and beers as I ranted about the FRRO and how unfair and frustrating it all was. No-one was responding to emails, my phone calls were being brushed off, and I’d watched way too many episodes of Masterchef Australia by this point.

Finally, the university prevailed and sent me through the documentation. After spending almost an entire week waiting, I was prepared. I had documents of no objection from the university, I had two-sentence email from someone in the FRRO, I had copies of passports, visas, registration forms, letters of invitation, everything. The man at the front desk of my hotel had very politely let me print a few things from his computer that morning, I may have taken advantage of his kindness… Anyway, nothing was going to stop me at this point. I charged through the waiting room and accosted the man at the desk there, waving my stack of papers like a lunatic and pointing at every tick on the checklist. He waved me through to the second room and my second opponent. I took a slightly more deferential approach, sprinkling my explanations with ‘Sirs’. He glanced through my paperwork, “Where’s the invitation letter from your new institution in Chennai?”

What? “I’m not going to Chennai, and there’s no new institution, just a short stay for research.”

“You need a letter from the institution,” and he swivelled his chair away.

Ok. I decided to go into the stairwell where I could discreetly decide if I was going to cry or not. Wait. The email. I raced back to the desk, brandishing my phone.

“But this email says that I only need documents from my university!”

The man gave a most impressive eyeroll. “Speak to my supervisor.”

I was directed to a desk behind a window about two-metres away, but still the man tried to call ahead. The phone didn’t work so he heaved himself up, seemingly with great effort, and walked over to explain to the supervisor why I was there.

Miracle of miracles, the supervisor seemed much more reasonable and, if not polite, at least civil, than any other FRRO person I had ever encountered.

“Miss, in order for us to issue a transfer certificate, we need your letter of acceptance for your new university in Chennai.”

I explained, once again, that I was not transferring universities, just going to do PhD fieldwork.

“Oh,” his brow furrowed, “how long will you be there for?”

“Maximum, another six weeks.”

“Oh well, you only need a transfer certificate if you’re away from more than eight weeks.”

“I know,” I tried not to laugh hysterically, “but the sir in the local office asked me to leave.”

“No, that’s incorrect. Have him call me if there are any problems.”

And that was it. I was dismissed. I was right. I was victorious! Wait. Was I? I’d just wasted a week in Hyderabad, only to be told what I already knew. This fixed nothing!

I called my host NGO to seek some advice.

“I don’t think that would go well,” she said, brusquely, after I suggested that the local FRRO man should call Hyderabad.

I sighed, my initial impressions of the man aligned with that assessment. He didn’t seem like the kind of person who like to be argued with, or proven wrong.

“Let me know what you want to do, bye!”

Great. I conferred with my research assistant. There were two options. Return to the district and do battle, potentially a suicide mission, or cut our losses and return after visiting the second site, after my Hyderabad registration had expired. I considered the options. Going back may serve to further antagonise the FRRO there, plus I only had another week before I was expected at my second site. I sighed, yet another tactical retreat.

So I got on the next flight back to Singapore, tail between my legs. I was right, I had every right to be there, but still, it was a hollow victory.

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The FRRO part 2

Beer tastes better when you’ve earned it. After a tough but fun sports session, or on a Friday after a long week at work, that first beer is extra sweet because you know you deserve it. On the flip side of that is the sympathy beers. They don’t taste as good, but they dull the pain of loss or failure. Not in the drink-your-sorrows way, more of a sympathetic ear and a shoulder to lean on, even if you shouldn’t really need it. Tough week at work but it’s only Monday? Sorry, that’s a sympathy beer.  Fight with the spouse when you know you’re wrong but too stubborn to admit? Sympathy beer. Let me tell you, the beer I’m drinking now is up there with the most sympathetic I’ve ever tasted.

Gather around friends, for this is not a drinking story, not yet anyway. Lend me your ears, and let me tell you a tale of our favourite government department. The one we love to hate. The FRRO! Boo, hiss. At this risk of being a one-trick pony-blog, here I am again.

My fieldwork has started, it’s going well. I’m on the verge of getting stuck into interviews based on all the observation I’ve been doing. The juicy stuff. But my nemesis, the FRRO had other plans. If you remember, I did suspect I’d have to fight another battle in this war. The warning drums sounded yesterday, “You need to go to town, they want to see you.” Ok, no problem, I’ll head in first thing tomorrow morning. Town is an hour away, plus I need to take all my documents.

“No. They want to see you now. The car’s here.”

Right. Ok. So off we went. Winding up, down, and around steep peaks and valleys blanketed in clouds and tea plantations, the drive was absolutely beautiful. When we reached town, the brightly-coloured houses terraced their way down the hill, smoke puffing from their chimneys. The smell of tea was heavy in the air, it’s roasting season. It really was an idyllic scene. But we accelerated straight through that, following the severe-looking signs that directed us to the “Police Superintendent”.

I idly wondered what an Indian police station was like. It’s not something you ever hope to see here – the inside of a police station, or a hospital, for that matter – but seeing as I was there on, hopefully, non-criminal matters, it would be quite interesting. We were escorted into a plain building with whitewashed walls and an air of superiority. No jail cells, just white tiles and white walls. We entered an office where a man behind a sad-looking desk flicked his wrist in our direction. Our local guides fell over themselves greeting him, “Good afternoon, sir. Thank you, sir.”

My fellow FRRO victim, an American who was completing her exit proceedings, nudged me to sit down. Without looking up, Lord Almighty of the Wonky Desk, called, “Passport.” I blinked, unsure as to who he was talking to but the American and our guides had sprung into action. He flicked through the paperwork and the passport, still not making eye contact.

“The date is wrong. When did you enter India?”

The American tripped over herself to explain but His Excellency held up his index finger.

“It’s a simple question.”

Crestfallen, the American answered with a specific date.

“You should have known better,” he had turned to our guide at this point.

Our guide murmured some apologies and some more “sirs”. The paperwork was thrust back towards him.

“Where is the transfer certificate? She is violating the terms of the visa without it.”

My turn, I guessed. I opened my mouth but our guide gave me a look that was both a warning and a plea not to get us all into trouble. And then we were shown out. It took all of five minutes.

“Wait, what just happened?”

We were suddenly back outside, and I was completely thrown. The American, who’d apparently had a very positive experience, was almost skipping.

“Yeah, he’s just like that. I had to get mine transferred from Delhi, hopefully they can do it without you having to go there.”

Uhh, ok. Then we got back in the car and drove back. For an hour.

Following our guides advice, I dutifully mailed the university who helped me register in Hyderabad in the first place. They came straight back, said they would do their best, but it’s a long weekend so they’d only get to it on Tuesday. Great. No problem!

Not great. Kind of a problem. The next day, I informed our guide of my emailings and he nodded, seemingly satisfied. Went up to work as per usual. But then there was a phone call. I heard my name. That is never good.

We had been summoned.

“Where is your transfer certificate?” the NGO woman-in-charge demanded.

I explained what I had told our guide, also her PA, that morning.

“We need it now.”

She’d just been on the phone to His Imperial Majesty, and Tuesday was Not Good Enough™. Ok, sorry, I can try to call them?

“No, you have to leave. Today.”

And that’s the story of how the FRRO got me kicked out of an entire district of India.

So here I sit, sipping my first beer (ok, technically now I’m up to the second) since I arrived weeks ago. Nothing has driven me to drink, nothing has distracted me from my work, until now. I’m in need of a sympathetic ear beer. At the risk of cliché, I’m sitting at an airport bar, drowning my sorrows and planning my next move. Going to Hyderabad might be a retreat, but I hope it’s going to be a strategically advantageous one. Tomorrow is a new day. The FRRO may have won this battle, but the war ain’t over yet.

First night in the field

20170612_102315Fieldwork has begun and it has been quite a start. There was a pre-pre-dawn departure, a delayed flight, a sweaty, steaming sprint between terminals, and then eventually touching down. But then it was on to the next leg. Two flights and a three-hour drive through windy, hilly roads with nothing but coffee sloshing around in my stomach did not make for a happy camper.

So, when the friend of a friend who had been helping me asked if I wanted to come to his parent’s place for dinner, my first instinct was to say no, thank you. I was tired and confused, and a little homesick already. Feeling completely out of my depth and in need of some decompression time. Fortunately, it struck me how rude it might have been to refuse the invitation so I accepted. Only after this I remembered my India survival technique. You have to say yes. Or at least shrug and go with “why not?”.

Because, much like her auto drivers and tourist touts, India doesn’t take no for an answer. She demands that you say yes. Obviously there are some fairly major caveats to this advice, I may be a solo female traveller in India but I’m not a complete idiot. It’s maybe not the best idea to follow shady dudes down dark alleys because they asked you too. But new experiences, meeting new people, eating new things, they’re kind of the reasons we travel in the first place. While India may be intimidating, so much so that the first instinct is to withdraw and regroup, that’s not why I’m here.

So we piled into our local host’s tiny Tata car and set off along the narrow mountain roads. The area was lush and green and stunning. The front seat were talking about how there had been elephants in the village two days early. The road curled around a tea factory and the air smelt like overbrewed tea.

As we pulled up in the village, there was a bit of a stereotypical moment. The car pulled up and we strangers got out. Two from the city, and me from somewhere else entirely. The men who were loading a truck with bags full of tea leaves stopped and stared. The children who had run up to the car initially hid behind each other and gaped. I pasted on my best goofy “hello” smile and followed our host up the hill.

We met his parents who smiled and welcomed us into their pristine home. It was warm inside, with the low ceilings and doorways trapping the heat in a way that was cosy, not smothering. Introductions were made complete with some broken English and completely butchered Tamil (mine obviously). “Come, we’ll take our tea outside.” It was hard to leave that toasty house that was just starting to smell like an amazing dinner spread. But it was worth it. The air outside was cold and crisp. We sat on plastic chairs and sipped on steaming hot, sweet chai. The village was on a steep slope, and this patio seemed to be on the main thoroughfare. This might not have been accidental, it turns out our host’s father was the village headman. People were constantly stopping by to have a chat and gawp at the foreigner. Two of the braver children stood near enough to headbutt me but were too shy to say hello.

It was pretty magical. Sometimes in the chaos and the filth and the poverty and the frustration, it’s easy to forget that India is indeed a special place. Bitch is manipulative. She makes you wait in ridiculous queues and tries to run you down with a trolley first, then a car, then a cow. She bakes you in steamy humidity then chills you with dry, dusty winds. She taunts you with images of delicious curries and rice, but then serves you a cheese sandwich. Still not sure how that happened.

Anyway, but then India turns in on and all is forgiven. It certainly was that night. After the long day of travel, I somehow ended up in a postcard of what fieldwork in India should look like. On a rooftop in a remote village, eating biscuits and drinking chai. The sun had long disappeared behind the mountains and the air smelt of cooking smoke and cows. “This might be what it’s all about,” I thought, as my host generous pushed the plate of biscuits towards me again. I declined though, gotta save room for that curry.

 

The FRRO

Gather round, children. Let me tell you an epic tale. A tale of defeat and despair, and darkness and damp, and a daring venture through a seething, steaming, bureaucratic swamp. Let me tell you about the FRRO.

So it turns out that foreigners on long-term visas in India are required to register within 14 days of arrival. As I was informed after being in India for a week. Woops.

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With only the vaguest idea of what registering actually meant and a fistful of forms given to me by the university admin guy, I entered the FRRO office in downtown Hyderabad, an hour’s drive away from the campus. Children ran around squealing, groups of people were huddled around their guides, listening intently to instructions, there were a few people sleeping. It was fairly relaxed for an Indian government department, I imagine. I was ushered to the first waiting room where an official-looking man glared at everyone from behind a desk. On the desk was a sign that directed all enquiries to the other room. I’m still not exactly sure what his job was, but I sat down, number in hand, and started dutifully filling out yet another form I’d been given.

This attracted some attention. An Iraqi guy handed me his forms and passport. “Oh, I’m not…” I tried, but he shrugged and mumbled something about no English. Realising it would take more energy to explain than to just fill out the form, I resigned myself to my new secretarial role. He had a friend with a form too. By the time my number was called, I’d filled out five forms, including my own.

I made it to the first window.

“No, need original, not copy.”

“But the university has it.”

The man at the first window had called the next person by that stage and I was shunted to the side.

Right.

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A five-hour excursion that resulted in nothing. Not altogether surprising, but annoying. It wasn’t my first time playing the intricate game of chess that is Indian bureaucracy though. Tomorrow, I’d take the king. I knew their strategy now. Tomorrow, I’d be ready.

The next day, I spent the long cab ride there getting pumped. I was going to do it! I was going to get registered! I am going to checkmate them! I am going to think of a better metaphor!

So I arrived. My game face (politely bewildered is my go-to) was ready, my paperwork was in order, my friend who was fluent in four local languages was a phone call away. I was not leaving without… well.. whatever it was I needed.

I got a ticket and only waited a few minutes in waiting room one until I was summoned to the first window. The hurdle I stumbled at yesterday. My nemesis barely flipped through my paperwork and waved me on.

I made it to the second waiting room, the inner sanctum. It was much nicer than the first oneI barely sat down in the second waiting room before my number was called. The smiley young man flicked through my paperwork and asked a few questions about my research, more polite and interested than probing. The inevitable discussion of cricket arose and was fortunately interrupted early. Fortunately, because it only took about three minutes for me to exhaust my knowledge of cricket. The man turned back to me, took my passport, and said my letter would be ready in 40 minutes.

Turns out, I was there to get a letter.

One hour and one surprisingly delicious chai later, I was summoned again. This time into the boss’s office. The boss didn’t look up from signing forms as I walked in. I recognised the pictures of some people from the waiting room on the forms he was signing. Lucky bastards.

“Community radio, huh? What is this?”

I launched into my spiel about what it is and how it’s different to other types of broadcasting, he interrupted with a wave of his pen.

“But nobody listens to that. There’s none of that in Hyderabad, why are you here?”

“Well, there is community radio in Hyderabad, and people do listen. I’m here to learn more about those people, and how community radio helps with development.”

“How does it help? How can it help poor people?”

“Uhh, well, there are a lot of really good examples here in India about how it has helped, but uhh, I guess that’s what I’m trying to find out…”

The man behind the desk got frustrated. “You are telling me what you think I want to hear, I’m really very interested, I will sign this regardless of what you say!”

I wished he would just sign it then and there, before I had the chance to say the wrong thing again. The boss flipped back to the first page of my forms.

“The form says you have no religion. How can you understand the religious people here if you have no religion of your own?”

Great. A less divisive topic. I mumbled a non-committal answer about the cultural diversity of India, which was promptly ignored.

“Where does your husband work? Why isn’t he here with you?”

“He’s back in Singapore working, but he’ll come and visit.”

“Good, bring him here, I would like to meet him. We can have tea.”

He then scribbled his signature on my form and handed it to me.

“Thank you for the chat, your research is very interesting. I wish you all the best.”

I would have been less surprised if he slapped me across the face. Another man appeared and ushered me back out to the waiting room. “I make a copy then I’ll bring.”

I sat in the first waiting room, slightly stunned. What just happened?

And that’s when the ceiling caved in. Not the metaphoric ceiling of my patience, but the actual ceiling. Water dripped and then poured from the roof above the grumpy man’s desk. He glared at the ceiling then turned back to the TV. I looked around to see if anyone else was amused by this latest turn of events but I got nothing. People stared blankly at their phones or the TV, no one seemed to care that it was now raining inside despite weeks of not raining outside.

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Water starting to pour from the ceiling…

The man returned with my letter and my passport, barely glancing at the indoor monsoon taking place a meter to his left.

“Ok?” I asked, uncertainly.

“Yes, ok.”

Right. I grabbed my stuff and scampered out before anyone could take the hard-fought letter away from me.

Unfortunately, due to my semester-based affiliation with an India institution, I have to repeat the whole process again in a few months. Next time, I’ll take an umbrella.

Sir-tainly

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 Hyderabad sunset

I’ve been in India planning and getting organised, as much as possible, for my fieldwork. To say it’s been a learning curve would be an understatement. While I’ve visited as a tourist, immersing myself in another academic culture when I’m not really that familiar with my own has been quite an experience.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long until my first, inevitable, cultural faux pas revealed itself.

Now, as a disclaimer, I wouldn’t say I’m excessively anti-authority, just the garden-variety, convict-descendent, Australian kind where everyone is called by their first name or “mate”.

I realised on my first trip here that I’d made a grave error. In all my emails prior to the trip, it was my usual approach of first name usage. Perfectly normal in Australia. I call my supervisor by her first name, I call faculty members at my uni by their first names, I called my former boss, a dean, by her first name, and, in turn, they all called me Bridget.

When I arrived in India and was greeted by a PhD student, it was all Professor So-and-so, First Name Sir, First Name Ma’am. I had an awful sinking feeling that I’d been ignorantly rude to the people who were kind enough to host me and assist in facilitating my research. Woops. Not that any of them called me on my cultural ignorance, but still, I’ve made sure that my speech and emails are liberally punctuated with sirs and ma’ams and professors and doctors ever since.

The phenomenon is not just associated with professional courtesy. At a conference, even older peers, fellow PhD students, got the sir or ma’am treatment. If I pulled that in the PhD student offices back home, I would either be laughed at, or people would think I was taking the piss, and they’d beat me up.

Speckling my emails with “sirs” and “ma’ams” is easy, but saying the words out loud is more difficult. They feel awkward and insincere. Not that I don’t have the utmost respect for the people I’m working with, it’s just surprisingly difficult to adjust to a culture that is so serious about putting that respect into words. Singapore is similar but more colloquial in terms of the use of Aunty and Uncle. Aunty and Uncle though seem much friendlier and more accessible ways of respecting those older than you, which is almost a cultural difference in itself. Even bhaiya feels a more natural, as much as is possible for a non-native Hindi speaker anyway…

For the mean time though, I’ll get used to “sirs” and “ma’ams”. At the end of the day, it’s probably one of the more minor cultural differences I’ve encountered since arriving in India! Plus, getting into the habit of being polite and respectful, albeit more formal than I’m used to, could never be a bad thing, right mate?

Site inspection

Disclaimer: engagement post. Abandon all hope ye who enter.

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After being engaged for almost exactly seven months (yes, I had to look it up), Partner 2 and I are actually making steps towards actually getting married, or having a wedding at least. We are looking at our first venue, a beautiful island in Indonesia. Though I’m slightly more excited to spend a few days snorkelling and lying on a beach, the prospect of actually looking at a venue is giving this weekend away a very serious and business-like overtone. I can’t shake the feeling that I need a clipboard. I thought it was flashbacks from when I worked as an event manager but a quick google of wedding venue checklists revealed that perhaps I needed a series of binders instead of just a clipboard. My checklist at the moment is pretty much:

Is the food good? Y/N

Is there enough accommodation? Y/N

Apparently the venue must be ruthlessly interrogated, under the threat of duress if possible, on anything that may affect the potential event. Bird migration patterns, local historical events with anniversaries coinciding with the event dates, fluoride content of tap water, coarseness of beach sand, it’s all fair game. How awful it must be to be on the other side of this interaction. Having highly-strung, wild-eyed couples descending upon you and being quizzed with the enthusiasm of a bored airport security officer. Any stutter, pause or unsatisfactory answer runs the risk of the happy couple sprouting black wings from their shoulder blades and screeching “IT’S MY SPECIAL DAY!” That’s how I’m planning to behave anyway. Brideharpy Bridget at the ready.

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On a slightly more serious note, looking at a venue makes this whole getting married thing seem real. The ring doesn’t do that, it’s too pretty to be taken seriously. Actually going to a place and assessing if it’s ‘right’ for our wedding? Bizarre.

I’ve been slow to shake the feeling that we’re waiting on permission from some mysterious higher-up. A government body perhaps, that deems people worthy of marriage.

Dear Partner 1 and Partner 2,

It is with deep regret that I write to inform you that your application to wed has been rejected. While we are unable to provide individual feedback, common reasons for rejection include:

  • Failure to lodge the correct paperwork,
  • Pre-existing marriage,
  • Inability to make a decision on what to have for dinner,
  • Singing the theme song to “Rainbow Road” from Mario Kart loudly at your partner in public,
  • Throwing a Frisbee into the sea and making your fully-clothed partner get it.

Please return your engagement ring to the relevant case worker assigned to your relationship.

Regards,

Committee to Oversee Marriage Appropriateness

We’re yet to receive our COMA results so this weekend is a go. I’ll post some photos when we get back. You can be the judge of how it went: I’ll either be wearing sunglasses and smiling with a Bintang in hand or I’ll be beating my wings and clutching the shreds of a binder in my talons.

To heed the call?

I saw something on Pinterest that I didn’t understand. That in itself is not ground-breaking, I really don’t get half the shit that’s on there, particularly in the burlap-bound, flower-crowned, hellish depths that are the Weddings section. That is another post entirely though. No, this one pops up in the Travel section and a variety of “inspirational” quote boards.

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The quote is attributed to John Muir, a Scottish-American adventurer/environmental philosopher/conservation, who, by all accounts, seems like a pretty cool guy. He spent his days tramping through the wilderness of California, exploring, studying, writing. The quote is from a letter to his sister: “The mountains are calling and I must go, and I will work on while I can, studying incessantly.” The last, oft-redacted, part of the quote sells it way more for me. Sounds like someone who has nailed their research topic, which is the dream, really.

Back to the mountains. Admittedly my mountain experience is limited. That comes with spending the majority of your life within spitting distance of sea level. But I climbed Kinabalu and bloody hated it. Rinjani did much to redeem mountains but I’d never been 100% sold. I love hiking and the outdoors, and I physically miss the ocean when I’m away from it for too long, but the mountains have never called to me the way they apparently call to so many keyboard climbers.

A book changed that. I’m sure that makes me no different from the Pinners that post these whimsical quotes and daydream about rose-tinted peaks, but it’s true. The book was Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, about the same events that the recent movie, Everest, was based on. I had no idea about the 1996 tragedy on Everest and no real interest in mountains but the author also wrote Into the Wild, one of my favourite books and my favourite movie, so I downloaded it for a seven-hour flight. The book consumed me. I hate reading on screens but I couldn’t stop. I ran my phone’s battery dead reading non-stop. When I landed in Singapore and got home, the first thing I did was charge my phone so I could finish. I’ve read it twice in two months and sung its praises to just about everyone who has made eye contact.

Safe to say the book had an impact. I had nightmares about storms and cold. The Himalaya became regulars in my browser search history. They were never too far from the top of my mind. It was not that the experience was romanticised. Far from it. Krakauer captured the dangers and pain of mountaineering with journalistic precision and openly catalogued the effects such a hobby has on the loved ones of those who do it. Nonetheless, I was equally terrified and enthralled. I was not exactly inspired to pick up some rope and crampons, and throw myself into a new sport but the fascination remained.

Base camp is a fixture on many a bucket list, Partner 2 has even expressed interest in the past. Not me though, the physical and mental strength that drives people uphill through thinning air is something I can only analyse from a distance, an interesting scientific phenomenon from which I am removed. But, I do want to see it. Everest. From a distance is fine. But I want to try and understand the pull. The power it has over people, who endure pain and suffering, who test the limits of the human body, and who risk their lives to stand on the summit. If the mountains are calling, then this one surely has the loudest voice.

So I guess the, long-winded, point of this post is that I get it now. I get it, John Muir. I understand how mountains can call, they might even be calling me a little bit. What I’m wary of is the rhapsodised, sepia-toned representations. We’re not always called to things that are good for us. Who says the mountain’s call isn’t a sinister one? A siren song. It’s not really a call that can be made by someone at sea level. Maybe one day I’ll find out.

Easter in the jungle

 

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One of the worst things about weekends is how short they are and how quickly they disappear. As if through some sort of dark magic, Friday night manages to very quickly dissolve into Sunday afternoon. There’s a specific feeling that rolls around on Sunday night when you realise you’ve spent the last two days wearing pyjamas and playing on your phone while the TV mumbles in the background. Mourning a weekend wasted is not the best way to start a new week.

Weekend escape is a vague phrase trotted out by tour companies and airlines to sell everything from mystery hotel staycations to all-inclusive resort packages. To me though, neither of these are escape. Escape is the opposite of everyday. It’s a phone on flight mode and ignored, it’s getting dirty when the real world demands clean, it’s doing things the hard way when everything is easy and convenient. I know it’s not for everyone, but getting out into nature is my favourite way to escape. Desert, rainforest, tundra, mountains, it’s all good, but my particular favourite is the jungle. It’s immersive, unforgiving and another world completely from the sanitary, city-scapes of Singapore. Fortunately, I don’t have to go far to get my fix. An hour flight and a few hours’ drive is all it took last weekend.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra was the setting for our Easter long weekend. While our Instagram and Facebook feeds filled up with picture of foil-covered chocolate, we chose orangutans over bunnies and bird-watching over egg hunts. After a night in the hazy chaos of Medan and a winding, potholed drive, the oil palm plantations gave way to pristine rainforest and rivers so clear it was impossible to judge their depth. Bukit Lawang was our gateway to the jungle. The sleepy town leaned over the banks of the Bahorok River, whose gentle rapids were the ultimate playground for the local kids. I could have spent a week there, but all we had was one afternoon, well-spent exploring bat caves and sinking frosty Bintangs with spicy food.

Our trek began the next morning, before we had even cleared the rubber trees of the village, our guide pointed out a tiny snake halfway through swallowing a frog that was three or four times its size. Welcome to the jungle.

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Much like the hapless frog and the, likely very full, snake, the jungle has a way of consuming you. It dictates your every movement and permeates your every thought. Humidity settles around you like a thick coat and your eyes become sensitive to flurries of movement in your peripheral vision. Time is blurred: you could have been walking for ten minutes or an hour, the trees dilute the sun’s light and make it impossible to judge what a clock might say. But suddenly, it doesn’t matter.

The boots that seemed so bulky and unwieldy when you stuffed them in your check-in luggage are the only thing stopping you from slipping on damp leaf litter and hidden slick clay. Fingers that spend most of their time tapping on keyboards are suddenly grasping rocky ledges and curling around vines. You’re not sure if you’re soaked with rain or sweat, your arms bear the marks of mosquitoes and sharp sticks, mud cakes around your boots and also your bum from scooting down those places that were just too steep. But you don’t notice, all that matters is that next footfall. In this modern age, we might call it mindfulness. Nothing else exists except for that moment.

I challenge anyone to think about emails while tentatively bouncing on a tree root to see if it’ll take your weight. Is it even possible to think about work when you’re staring up at a Sumatran orangutan who is peering right back at you with her impossibly expressive eyes? A final example, and one that is probably more aligned with the general tone of this blog, is if social media is on your mind when you’re coaxing your tired, shaking legs to squat over a jungle toilet. I’m going to guess, probably not.

But then, just as quickly as you arrived, you leave. A hot shower and soap are exquisite luxuries at first, but as you scrub the jungle from your skin, the real world comes flooding back. Then it’s flight times and bag-packing, taxis from the airport and morning alarm clocks. Your bed accepts you back as though you never left. But it takes a bit of time to get back to normal, longer than if you spent the weekend at home. There’s a part of you still in the jungle; in your mind’s eye, you look like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway, and are still quietly amazed by the potable tap water and clean, quiet comfort of home. The jungle’s effect on time lingers. It feels like you were gone for a long time, but you weren’t. Just an Easter long weekend.

Bested in Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia

As someone who has travelled fairly extensively in Asia and is a vegetarian, I considered myself immune to all but the most insidious cases of food poisoning. You get used to scanning for the gastrointestinally problematic. Check the ice, avoid the salad, look for the popular street food stalls, is it hot? Can you peel it? It becomes second nature when travelling in Asia. Singapore though has incredibly high food safety standards, you’d be hard-pressed to get sick here without having to import some Indonesian tap water. As easy as it would be to fall into blasé patterns, usually I’m very aware that as soon as you step off an aerobridge at Changi you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. My history of digestive trauma has been fairly well-documented, but the last episode was years ago, at the end of my last trip to India. These factors meant that my food guard was down on our recent trip to Europe. Way down. As in, “Europe, do your worst!” down.

It was a perfect storm. Living in Asia snobbery (“Please, if that road-side lassi stand didn’t make me sick, nothing will!”), assumptions of vegetarian immunity (“Bacteria eats rotten flesh, not me. Veggie power!), combined with a long spell between attacks (“I am the possessor of the iron stomach! Haahahahaha!”). Naturally, it all came crashing down, in Barcelona of all places. A beautiful city of culture, art and architecture,  and one that’s famous for food and drink too. On paper, we did everything right. A restaurant close to our hotel, in the tourist district but still crowded with locals every day. We ordered a selection of tapas, nothing that we hadn’t tried before, nothing outlandish. Everything tasted great. We paid and retired for the evening. Everything was fine.

Until a few hours later. I woke to Partner 2 leaping out of bed to stagger to the bathroom and make some very upsetting noises. The full spectrum. Use your imagination. When he came back to bed, his face was grey and his hand shook as he took a sip from his water bottle. “I don’t think that dinner was good. How are you feeling?” I was fine, I told him and made some assorted comforting noises and sentiments. Partner 2 is a bit notorious for having a delicate stomach, as much as he loathes to admit it. I was not concerned. It must have been whatever meat he and his sister shared.

As Partner 2 lay sweating in the foetal position, just waiting for his next urgent dash to the bathroom, I went back to sleep. Empathetic as always. Looking back on it now seems like a horror movie when the girl goes down into the dark basement alone. Stop, stupid girl, obviously you’re going to get murdered! But it’s always too late. Hindsight is 20/20.

Sure enough, an hour or so later, I awoke to stabbing pains in my stomach and ran to the bathroom to revisit dinner. Again and again. In between attacks of vomiting, I remembered two things. The first that males generally have faster metabolisms than females. The second, and more critical point, was that no-one had ordered any meat. We had all shared vegetarian tapas.

After a fitful few hours of sleep punctuated by sprints to the bathroom to purge any remaining stomach contents, there was a resigned knock on the door. Partner 2’s sister was at the door looking like she’d been hit by a truck. We all sat on the bed trying to comprehend the fact that in just a few hours we had to get in a taxi and go to the airport, then fly to London, then sit on a train for an hour. Drugs. We needed drugs. Partner 2 and his sister bravely went on a mission across the road to the chemist while I threw up a few more times for good measure.

Retrospectively, it could have been a lot worse. The hotel gave us late check out and the medicine we procured gave us a few hours of precious vomit-free sleep and meant we could keep down some water. By the time we had to head to the airport, after some sleep, electrolytes and a shower, our collective condition has been upgraded from “Kill me now” to just “Awful”. Needless to say it was a long taxi ride, I clutched a plastic bag fearfully, the electrolytes I had drunk threatening to reappear at any moment. But we made it. I even ate something at the airport. The flight was mercifully short and our Uber driver was right where we needed him to be.

I think he was in real danger of being hugged by his three passengers. Despite the signs of inevitable recovery, I had never been so happy to see a blow-up mattress before in my life. We collapsed into bed and slept for 12 hours. Barcelona had bested us. My iron stomach had been demoted back to a regular human organ. And I doubt I’ll ever eat tapas again.